PALM SPRINGS, CALIF. — The buffalo, with its large forequarters, shaggy mane, massive head and short, curved horns, has long captured the imagination of Americans, especially artists. Roaming the West in vast herds in the nation’s early history, then slaughtered in disturbing numbers, the buffalo has endured as a subject of great interest and concern.
No artist devoted more time and attention to these massive beasts of the American West than George Catlin (1796–1872), an Easterner who pioneered in recording Plains Indian tribes and animals in the 1830s. In the course of five journeys, Catlin traversed the region, visiting and painting 140 Native American tribes and views of buffalo that documented the crucial role they played in Plains Indian culture.
“George Catlin’s American Buffalo” comprises 40 original Catlin paintings from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s (SAAM) holdings of more than 500 works from the artist’s first Indian Gallery, painted from life in the 1830s. Organized by SAAM in collaboration with the National Museum of Wildlife Art (NMWA) in Jackson Hole, Wyo., the exhibition is curated by Adam Duncan Harris, that museum’s curator of art and research. On national tour, “George Catlin” has already been seen at the NMWA and is currently on view at Palm Springs Art Museum through December 29.
“Catlin’s Indian Gallery is an unparalleled collection of great artistic and historical significance that contributes to understanding America’s frontier and the cultures of Plains Indian tribes,” observes Elizabeth Broun, director of SAAM. She emphasizes that the “exhibition features paintings showing the ways Native American life centered on the buffalo….”
Born in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., Catlin grew up hearing tales of Indians from settlers and his family. Although showing a talent for drawing, Catlin followed his father’s wishes to study law and set up a practice in Wilkes-Barre, but after a few years he closed his office and moved to Philadelphia to try his hand as an artist.
He earned commissions to paint portraits of such notables as Dolley Madison and Sam Houston, but struggled to find a larger purpose in his work. He found it around 1828 when a delegation of Indians stopped in Philadelphia on their way to Washington, D.C. Fascinated by “their classic beauty” and feeling that “civilization”— especially whiskey and smallpox — was wiping them out, Catlin sought out Indian subjects to record for posterity. Vowing to become their “historian” and in spite of being recently married, Catlin set out for the West in 1830. It was a happy marriage, blessed with four children, and Catlin was constantly torn between devotion to his family and his artistic ambitions.
From St Louis, Catlin traveled 400 miles up the Mississippi to Fort Crawford, where several tribes were conducting a council. Catlin took out his brushes and began work.
Catlin’s mission was to preserve, as he put it, “the looks and customs of the vanishing races of native man in America” before their “extermination” by a government greedy for their lands. His objective, he said, was to reach “every tribe of Indians on the continent of North America,” and to produce “faithful portraits…views of their villages, games, &c.” He was the first artist to paint American Indians so comprehensively on their home turf, and one of the few to depict them as fellow human beings rather than savages.
Over the course of six years, with occasional winter stays with his family, Catlin created more than 600 portraits — memorable likenesses of chiefs, warriors, braves, squaws and children from more than 30 tribes living along the upper Missouri River — and 175 landscapes.
He was understandably intrigued by the great number of buffalo he observed and their relationship to the native population. Populating open land between Mexico and Canada, the big, burly beasts roamed in giant herds, at one time numbering an estimated 30 million. Taking a particular interest in the pivotal role buffalo played in Native American life, Catlin recorded the traditions and hunting practices of the indigenous people in word and image with vivid clarity.
Catlin worried about — and wrote eloquently about — the eventual loss of the West’s awesome landscape, as well as the diminution of its human and animal inhabitants. He developed an idea to preserve them and Native American societies. As Broun and McNutt emphasize, the “key to this exhibition and catalog is his idea that the United States should create a national park as a sanctuary for both the bison and the American Indians he encountered on the plains, believing both to be endangered by encroaching settlement.”
Catlin envisioned a vast area preserved by government authority, “in their pristine beauty and wildness,” where for “ages to come” the world could see “the native Indian in his classic attire, galloping his wild horse, with sinewy bow, and shield and lance, amid the fleeting herds of elks and buffaloes. … A nation’s Park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty!”
From today’s perspective, Catlin’s concept is objectionable for envisioning what Harris calls a “park where American Indians were relegated to live alongside buffalo as a kind of sideshow for the amusement” of outside onlookers, as well as a forerunner of Indian reservations. On the other hand, it is recognized as a potential land-use plan that could lead to a sustainable way to manage the Great Plains in the Twenty-First Century. Catlin deserves credit for stimulating thinking about national parks, the first of which, Yellowstone, was established in 1872.
“Thanks to his prolific writing and the wide distribution of his images,” says Harris, “Catlin cemented a stereotype of Plains Indians and buffalo that persists to this day.” The curator underscores significance of the artist’s depictions of the “imbedded, inseparable nature of the American Indian and the American buffalo.”
Prior to Catlin, the visual record of buffalo was uneven at best. The bison was a popular subject for artists because it was so different from most other flora and fauna of the New World, and because it was easier to approach and sketch than more skittish animals like deer, elk, bears and pronghorns. Buffalo images, often distorted portrayals based on verbal descriptions, began to appear as early as the mid-Sixteenth Century and continued into the early Nineteenth Century, when the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804 “opened the doors for others of European descent to explore the great American West,” says Harris.
Starting in the late 1820s and early 1830s, increasing numbers of artists traveled to the West to record its people and animals. Catlin led the way. During five expeditions to gather material, starting in 1830, he worked on both his writings and paintings about life on the plains.
Harris divides Catlin’s buffalo artwork into three categories: “paintings of buffalo life, unfettered and unpursued; paintings of the buffalo hunt in its various incarnations; and paintings of American Indians that incorporate some element of the buffalo.” Seeking to depict varied activities that would offer viewers back East insights into the ambience of life on the plains, Catlin painted buffalo in menacing portraits, fighting for mating rights, wallowing in waterholes, interacting with other animals and under attack from Indians on horseback. He also depicted tribeswomen curing buffalo hides and drying buffalo meat, buffalo skins displayed as offerings to the Great Spirit and Indians performing buffalo dances and other buffalo-related rituals.
In pendant portraits of a single “Buffalo Bull” and “Buffalo Cow” Catlin offered broadside views of each animal and distinct delineation of their heads, allowing for anatomical comparisons. The bull is larger and his gaze more confrontational than the cow, although both are intimidating figures.
Catlin carefully painted the variety of ways Native Americans hunted down buffalo, most often in action-packed scenes of tribesmen attacking on horseback, wielding lances or bows and arrows. “Buffalo Chase, a Surround by the Hidatsa” shows a large number of Indians on horseback implementing the dangerous but deadly tactic of encircling a herd of buffalo and gradually closing in for the kill.
Particularly intriguing was the technique in which Indians approached a herd under cover of white wolf skins until they were close enough to the unsuspecting group to easily shoot them down with bow and arrow. During snowy winters, Indians abandoned their horses and donned snowshoes to kill buffalo mired in deep snow.
Catlin also recorded for posterity the manner in which the buffalo was turned into meat to eat, and for housing and clothing. Thus, he painted a white, highly decorated Crow lodge made of 25 buffalo skins, and a view of a Comanche village with lodges made of buffalo skins and women dressing skins and drying meat for consumption.
The buffalo theme continues into Catlin’s formal portraits of Indians, such as the buffalo horns denoting leadership and bravery worn by several stalwart figures, the decorated buffalo hide worn by a chief’s wife and names like White Buffalo.
Following his last trip West in 1836, Catlin exhibited his Indian Gallery in major Eastern cities and lobbied unsuccessfully to have Congress purchase it as the nucleus of a National Museum of American Indians. Three years later, he took the Indian Gallery to Europe, seeking to generate income while educating audiences about Indian life. He also published a two-volume, illustrated record of his experiences in the American West and a portfolio of hunting scenes aimed at English sportsmen. None provided the financial rewards he needed and, after a short period in debtor’s prison, he sold the Indian Gallery to Joseph Harrison of Philadelphia, whose widow later donated it to the Smithsonian Institution.
Little is known of Catlin’s final years; he claimed to have traveled widely and painted 600 new works, but died in obscurity in Jersey City, N.J., at age 76.
In the aftermath of Catlin’s death, buffalo herds, decimated by hide hunters, dwindled to a mere 1,000 by one 1889 estimate. Thanks to efforts by various individuals and organizations to preserve the burly beasts., including restoration projects by Indian tribes, by 2012, the National Bison Association announced there were 220,000 buffalo in the United States and a similar number in Canada — “a promising start,” observes Harris. All this represents a “small step toward the fulfillment of Catlin’s enduring vision of a magnificent park, one that could never look the way he envisioned it, but one that would likely please him nonetheless,” Harris says.
An internationally recognized expert on Native Americans, George Catlin’s paintings created a vision of Indian culture that resonates to this day. “His collection now stands as an accomplished historical record of this nation’s early inhabitants, both human and animal,” says Harris, “and for that he would have been proud.”
After closing in Palm Springs, “George Catlin” travels to C.M. Russell Museum (May 31-September 14, 2014); Menello Museum of American Art (October 4-January 1, 2015), and Reynolda House Museum of American Art (February 12-May 3, 2015).
The fully illustrated, 213-page catalog written by Harris is interesting and informative. Published by SAAM in association with D Giles, Limited, London, it sells for $49.95, hardcover.
Palm Springs Art Museum is at 101 Museum Drive. For information, 760-322-4800 or www.psmuseum.org.